Walt Disney World's Maelstrom, Part 3

by Paul Torrigino, contributing writer

Paul Torrigino's stories last fall about the never-built Dragon Tower attraction (read part 1 | part 2) were very well received and prompted many questions about his work on the Maelstrom attraction at Epcot's Norway pavilion. Paul returns with a multi-part series about his experiences with the Maelstrom.

In part 1 of this series (link), Paul described the origins of the Maelstrom attraction and how it became its current format of a time-travel ride. In Part 2, (link) he looked deeper into the design and early construction of the attraction. Today, Paul continues the series by looking the construction and assembly of the attraction on site at Walt Disney World. – Mark Goldhaber

The sculpture and model shops

For me, the sculpture shop and the model shop at Imagineering was always the heart of the place because that's where everything goes first from paper to reality. Over the years I would always pop in to the sculpture shop to see what the latest was (trying not to be too much of a nuisance!).

In the early 1980s when Blaine was still there, I would go in once in a while to see what he was up to, and he was always very friendly to me. One time he was sculpting away at a beautiful bas relief piece for EPCOT; it was an art nouveau cartouche for the French pavilion and it had some scrollwork and a classical female head in the middle of it. I was in awe of his talent. He would tell me things like, “The more you do, the better you'll get,” and he would point out that he looked for the basic forms in a piece and work those out first.

The Imagineering sculpture shop has always been a world-class shop because of the amount of effort they put into everything, and also because they always have the most talented people around working in there. Nothing leaves that shop that isn't the best it could be. Today Valerie Edwards is the head of sculpture there and she is another amazing talent, born to sculpt, and carries on the great Imagineering sculpting traditions admirably.

The polar bear

When Peter sculpted the polar bear, he did quite a bit of research to get it as authentic as possible, and it was pretty much a straight copy of a real giant polar bear. The neck does look awfully long, but you know, that's the way they really look. If anything, I think the head might be a tad big, but other than that it's pretty good. If you do a quick picture search on the web for a standing polar bear you'll see what I mean.

The giant polar bear was quite impressive when they built it on the floor at MAPO [Disney's Manufacturing and Production Organization, derived from MAry POppins]. I think it was about 10 feet tall. It was more impressive standing right next to it than it was in the ride, I think, because you go by it so fast.

An unidentified construction worker shows just how tall the polar bear figure is. Photo courtesy of Paul Torrigino.

When the polar bear figure went to figure finishing, it was a special challenge for fur expert Helena Hutchinson. She commented on how long the neck was, and how much the head moved, and that there was no under-support for the fur at the neck because of all the animation. But she worked her usual magic and came up with a special spandex under-layer that kept everything in place.

Helena worked in the figure finishing department at WDI [Walt Disney Imagineering] since the mid-1960s and worked on every attraction they did from Pirates of the Caribbean on up until she retired in the 1990s. She was the resident fur expert and was especially good with difficult figures that had a lot of animation. One of her best, I think, is the tiger in the Jungle Cruise. It had quite a bit of neck movement, and she did a beautiful job of airbrushing the stripes onto the fur.

I was lucky enough to get to work side by side with Helena for some years in the 1980s and she taught me so much! We had the best time together. She has a great subtle sense of humor, and we laughed so much every day! She was a pure joy to work with and she's one of the classiest, most charming ladies you'd ever want to meet.

Helena Hutchinson puts some finishing touches on the three-headed troll figure. Photo courtesy of Paul Torrigino.

Usually when the figures came off the production line from MAPO, the body shells were naked fiberglass cut up here and there to allow for the movement of the animation. Her job for fur type animals would be to find a suitable flexible fake fur cloth and tailor it to the figure, making essentially a body suit. Parts of it would be glued down directly to the body, and other parts would be cleverly made to move along with the animation over the open spots on the body shell.

Helena had all kinds of little tricks to make that work, and she used Velcro, snaps and spandex; sometimes creating a type of girdle if needed to keep everything in place and also allow for the greatest range of motion possible. After the fur was on the figure, it would be shaved to length here and there if necessary, and hand colored with an airbrush, and then any special touches would be added, like whiskers, manes or whatever else was needed, depending on the type of animal it was.

Special effects ideas

While the figures and sets were in production, the special effects were also being worked out. During the model-making phase, we worked with Jim Mulder from the special effects department, who was assigned to our ride. Jim was probably the best of the new generation of special effects guys around and we were really lucky to have him. So as we were coming up with the ideas, we would talk it over with Jim and he would take our initial idea and expand on it. The biggest effects challenge of the ride was creating the storm in the oil rig scene at the end of the ride, and he was up to it.

Jim had a lot of ideas on how to do it, and early on he thought about using a giant Tesla coil to make real lightning! Somehow he got a hold of a guy who specialized in artificial lightning and he did a mock-up for us.

For a few days, they took over the new metal shed building built to house the Star Tours simulator mock-ups and he set up this giant Tesla coil metal column thing about 10 feet high or so with a big metal ball on top of it. He would fire it up and there would be an explosion with a 15-foot bolt of lightning shooting out and crashing into one of several receptacles in the corners of the room.

It was quite shocking (pun intended), frightening and loud! That day you could hear the explosions all over the Imagineering property. Great effect, but no one could figure out how to pull it off without electrocuting people, since our vehicles were boats in real water! So we didn't get to use the effect.

Disney muralist Bill Anderson paints the large backdrop for Maelstrom's waterfall scene. Photo courtesy of Paul Torrigino.

Jim came up with a host of other great effects including a whole bank of Pani projectors to project the stormy sky and lightning in the scene.

The big oil rig in the last scene was one of the few pieces we vended out, and it was made of metal by a model company in Houston. It was made in sections and then reassembled on real concrete legs in the scene in Florida.

Coming next week

In the next part of the story, Paul discusses the construction and assembly phase of the project on site at Walt Disney World.